With the Euroleague draw behind our backs, I’d consider this the perfect time to give you my take on what has been happening in Lietuvos Rytas and Žalgiris and what awaits the two later on in the season already knowing their competition in Euroleague. Or at least the colours of the opponent’s jersey as there are plenty of uniforms in the corner still waiting for surnames to be sown on in the back. The ride both of the teams took so far is disparate in every way you look at it that, you could say, the two strongest Lithuanian teams went searching for Santa Claus in the different poles. One way is bound to work.
LIETUVOS RYTAS Vilnius
Lietuvos Rytas has taken bold moves from the very start of the free-agency period, if you could name it as such, and managed to build a team in less time that I get myself out of bed every other day. It was the confident, brave and convinced decisions that set the tone for the Lithuanian champions from Vilnius. A team was there ready to play with the top European domestic leagues still unraveling in the climax. In fact, all of the moves for the next year began already in the middle of the season when the GM of the club Jonas Vainauskas executed an and-one play with Bojan Popovic’s transfer to Efes Pilsen milking the opportunity to its full as the Serb had signed a one-year-deal with the club from Vilnius.
The received buy-out paid for the acquisition of combo-guard Igor Milosevic, who’ll serve as a very decent bench player for Lietuvos Rytas the next season, despite previously being thought of the primary option at the point. Kenan Bajramovic proved to be the key addition for the team’s success in late season and the triumph in the Lithuanian league against the coach-less opponents from Kaunas.
Call me whatever you want, but Rytas got the steal of the European free-agency in Brad Newley. I have now watched him with the Australian national team for a couple of games and can only tell you, he’s gonna rock the Euroleague boat… To be more precise, I’m talking 15 points, 4 boards and a couple of dimes a game. You can count this one in already! My Aussie friends @ASternWarning, @travismreid and @anthonyalsop say he’s NBA material, I would agree after seeing what little I’ve seen of him.
Lietuvos Rytas already had a good starting package together – Martynas Gecevičius was as impressive as any other shooting guard in the league and was the true revelation of last year’s Euroleague hitting more three-pointers than anyone in the league… Well, if you don’t count Mirza Teletovic. But he’s a Bosnian – doesn’t count. Or maybe he does, so you don’t have any complaints when Kenan Bajramovic ranks first in free-throw attempts next year…
Arturas Jomantas will be moved to the bench and will probably occupy the sixth man role in the team to give the rook Newls a good rest and should get into double-digits now and then as well as being the defensive cornerstone in Rytas’ defense. While Milko Bjelica should start ahead of one of the most talented Euro players around Jonas Valančiūnas at center, he should still receive reasonable minutes after joining the team in mid-season last year. Especially if he bulks up a little.
What else? The new starter at the point guard Jerry Johnson resembles Hollis Price from a couple of seasons ago and is a definite upgrade on Milosevic, who’ll add depth to the bench now. I haven’t seen much of Johnson, just like the other rookie in the town the Turkish big guy Cemal Nalga, who’ll replace Aron Baynes. I won’t hide my sympathy for Baynes as I saw him as a good prospect and a project for the future, but the management of Lietuvos Rytas have decided that their time is now and they don’t want to screw it up.
And by saying that it’s their time NOW, I’m not just fooling around with words. The Lithuanian champs are aiming high in Europe, very high. Give it a wild guess it in your mind… A bit wilder… Here you go! Absolutely nailed it – they’re aiming for the Final Four! That might sound absurd, but it isn’t at all. The statement might have sounded a little too bold or big-headed… And it might be, but, frankly, I do not care. They got me on-board – I like the “Yes we can!” attitude, the winning mentality. I’d rather aim at the top and finish just short than to achieve the regular Top 16 finish! Whoops, missed it last year, but that’s the bloody luck for you…
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying for certain that this team’s going to the final four and it might be fair to say that they’re probably not, but at least I’ve got hope. Hope of seeing good basketball with a much stronger side than a year ago, so why not give ourselves an outside chance. It will all have to be played game by game and with a much deeper roster, I feel that Lietuvos Rytas has the capability to upset anyone on a given night.
I’ll give my bet on this team reaching the playoffs. From then on, you can count on luck and if they somehow end up with home-court advantage in the series… Let’s wait for other teams to fill up their roster. Barcelona will be just as strong as last year if not stronger, Montepaschi will definitely have another look to it and Fenerbahce have been strong in the summer market. I really don’t think Cibona and Cholet will provide much competition for the rest of the pack. Final word? Third place in the group with a 6-4 record. And that’s not entirely optimistic, I would have gone even higher, but… Screw that, 7-3! Second place in Group C with Barca first. I might be ashamed of myself after the season, but that’s just me getting in the moment.
This is pretty much overblown by me, but I believe in what I’ve just written and plan to do so for at least for the next 24 hours! Vainauskas said they’re not going to stop in the regular season, go through to the Top 16 as at least the second seed and just mentioned going even higher.
So here I end my homer’s ode to high expectations. But remember, the higher you go, the higher you fall… Oh and by the way, it was sad to see coach Kurtinaitis go, the GM said it was better to part on a high rather than on a low. Let’s hope he’s right. And best luck to Rimas in VEF Riga!
This was supposed to be a piece comparing the two teams and their situation, it turned out to be rather different from what I had imagined before starting all of this. I’m just going to make it clear, there is going to be part two and we’ll see where we go from here on. So yeah, it’s at least a two-part series. I’d love to see a couple of comments. THERE WILL be a piece about Žalgiris!